Myanmar's military draft spurs exodus

Myanmar's junta is facing increased resistance from pro-democracy forces and ethnic armed groups in a shift that has coincided with the introduction of conscription. Since February, the military began a lottery system to sign up men aged 18 and older.

According to the Burma Affairs and Conflict Study (BACS) watchdog, almost 6,000 people have been recruited, many of them forcibly, during that period. The move has Myanmar youths facing a quandary: give in to the junta, flee, or fight back?

Young people choosing to leave

After the junta's surprise enactment of the national conscription law, there were long queues at the Thai Embassy in Yangon, as young people scrambled to obtain visas and leave.

The Thai Embassy in Yangon was swamped with people seeking a visa to leave Myanmar in February.

There has also been an interest in Japan, although that was already in train before conscription began. The number of people from Myanmar taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test rocketed from 57,888 in 2022 to 176,406 last year as many are worried about their safety and economic futures at home.

'I'm ashamed of myself'
People are taking risks to cross illegally into neighboring countries, with BACS estimating that since February, as many as 100,000 young men have tried to escape.

A man in his 20s who fled to Thailand from a village in central Myanmar spoke to NHK in an online interview. He asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

"I knew I was on the list for the (conscription) lottery," he said. "The village chief was calling ten people at a time, so I left before my name made the list."

This man in his 20s fled to Thailand to escape conscription by Myanmar's military junta.

The man was part of the anti-junta protests in the immediate aftermath of the 2021 coup, but as the military cracked down he kept a low profile. When leaders in his village announced in April they would be holding a draft, he sought the permission of his family to trek to Thailand, walking through forests and sleeping rough.

He heard gunfire and airstrikes as he crossed the border. It was a time of intense fighting between the military and resistance forces around the border town of Myawaddy, and he was one of thousands of refugees pouring into Thailand.

"There were aircraft shooting at civilians," he recalls. "It was the first time I'd ever heard such sounds. Destroying your country and firing at the people you should be protecting must never happen."

He says he's still uneasy, even after his escape from Myanmar, and is prepared to remain in hiding.

"I admire those who joined the resistance despite the threats to their families. I'm ashamed when I compare myself to them. But...I have to do what I can to survive."

Fighting back

Resistance forces appear to have been buoyed by the draft. Some people are undergoing military training before switching sides and fighting for what they believe in.

The resistance alliance was forged when peaceful demonstrations against the 2021 coup were brutally shut down by the military. Resistance fighters receive training from the ethnic armed groups that have been battling the military for decades.

First group that fled conscription law and joined resistance to have basic training

Another man in 20s says he joined the resistance group against the wishes of his parents because he could not stand by and watch the atrocities carried out by the military dictatorship. Being part of the fight first-hand has opened his eyes to just how dire the situation is in Myanmar.

According to local independent media, women could be drafted in a future round of forced conscription. With that threat looming, an increasing number of young females are undergoing training from the ethnic armed groups and joining the fight against the military.

An 18-year-old female resistance fighter explains the majority Bamar and other ethnic groups in Myanmar are becoming more coordinated as they oppose military rule: "I have roots with both the Bamar, the ethnic majority, and the Karen, an ethnic minority group. In my stereotypical view of the ethnic groups, I never expected them to be so kind to welcome me...I have a new appreciation."

"As long as citizens stay united, we will be able to continue to fight."

"I used to think we were the only ones fighting for the resistance in the jungle. I didn't think many city people felt like we did. But then when they showed up, I realized I'd been wrong."

Military faces moral crisis

According to Ye Myo Hein, a leading expert on the Myanmar military at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) think tank, at least 8,000 soldiers have defected or deserted between the coup and May this year. During the same period, the military has recorded about 13,000 battlefield deaths.

Win Naing Soe, a captain in the army until he defected last December, says conscription is a serious mistake by the military.

Former captain Win Naing Soe defected from the army in December 2023.

He characterizes the army as a large but empty shell.
"The number of soldiers aligned with the military's policies and laws is declining," he says. "Fewer soldiers remain loyal. The military has long feared the ethnic armed groups because of their iron determination. I think the resistance forces can defeat the military with (their) support."

Rohingya and conscription

In the western state of Rakhine, the military has been backed into a corner by the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organization based in the region, and it appears to have prompted an unlikely shift in tactics.

A local media outlet in Rakhine released a video shared on social media that shows a high-ranking military officer speaking to Rohingya youths in what is claimed to be part of a forced recruitment drive. The Rohingya youth are wearing military uniforms in the footage.

Rohingya youths have reportedly been forced to undergo military training by the military. Source: The Arakan Express News

Rohingya have been denied citizenship since 1982 and are not eligible for the draft. The Muslim minority group has long been persecuted by the military, and a military "cleanup" operation in 2017 claimed at least 6,700 lives, according to aids group Medicines Sans Frontiers. The crackdown prompted an exodus of more than 1 million refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.

During May, USIP revealed that the military had been forcibly enlisting Rohingyas. Twan Mrat Naing, commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army, says he has spotted Muslims among its prisoners of war.

Twan Mrat Naing, commander-in-chief, Arakan Army, during an online interview in May

"Young Muslims have surrendered by the hundreds in the Buthidaung township and offered us their weapons," he says.

Twan Mrat Naing also claims that the army was supplying weapons to Rohingyas even before their conscription. "The junta's strategy is to shift our attention from fighting against them to fighting against other groups," he says. "And to blame us for the genocide they have committed."

Desperate measures

The junta appears to be resorting to desperate measures to maintain its grip on power. It has announced plans for another round of conscription – and anyone who evades it could face imprisonment.
 
Meanwhile, amid a deepening humanitarian crisis, the resistance movement appears to have become more united.